The Socratic Scientist – Marcel Pinheiro

Though the togas and sandals have largely been left in the past, Socrates’ method of education is one that would be revolutionary in the modern science class. The Socratic method is, at its simplest, questions and discussion. But, as described by award-winning Stanford Professor Rob Reich, it is “emphatically not teaching.” Rather than providing information, an instructor instead participates in a discussion with students about the material. To begin, an instructor’s carefully crafted, open-ended question is asked and the students provide their answers; sometimes, only best guesses. An example question in biology could be what is a gene? or how do we define a species? But any answer provided by the students merely starts the discussion. The role of the instructor is to tactfully ask probing questions of the students to frame and support their understanding of the topic. 

In this way, it may be considered more akin to our own scientific method, where a series of questions and follow-up questions probe the student’s understanding of the topic as it flows from the group, and their peers try to defend their answers.  By teasing out misunderstanding or misconceptions held by a group, they journey together through logic, the literature, and past scientific discoveries to unveil the answer to the problem at hand.

The result is less time spent in lecture covering material readily available to the student in their textbook, and more time dedicated to understanding concepts, and the underlying science to solve problems. Consequently, prior to participating in class discussion, students must have some familiarity with the material, even if it is rudimentary. With class time now dedicated to discussion, it is necessary to let go of the idea that material needs to be explicitly transmitted from textbook to student via the power point slide. Instead, assign readings or assignments – expecting them to actually be done! Ultimately, Socratic method provides students with a forum to develop and test critical thinking skills, and a paradigm-shifting opportunity, inspired by the original gadfly, to take responsibility for their own education.

Socratic method is commonplace in law and medical schools, yet is relegated to only holding untapped potential for the science classroom to demonstrate complexity. When asked specifically on application to science instruction Prof. Reich noted that Socratic method excels at uncovering “underlying structures or competing hypothesis about how to explain certain events.” But as a tool for an instructor, the entire process rests on creating an environment that encourages students to participate in discussion. In many cases these open-ended questions do not have absolute answers – like many research problems in general. Thus, students must be encouraged to take risks and provide responses to questions they may be unsure of, and even the “crazy idea” can take the discussion in thought-provoking ways, which tests the limit of their ignorance.

The thought of three hundred students all trying to provide their opinion or conversely (and more common-place in the average science class), staring at the well-meaning instructor in silence, may seem inevitable. The truth, however, is that Socratic method may be adapted to function in a large group with little effort. One of the simplest methods is the use of small (3-9 student) break-out groups. After asking a question and before opening the floor to the group at large, the instructor can ask students to discuss their thoughts with a small number of students surrounding them. This prevents timid students from having to stand out in the large group, while also building confidence. One pitfall is the freedom it gives students – an instructor must allow the discussion to explore tangents when addressing a question, but must recognize when to ease the discussion back on track.

Probing questions are the main tool in the instructor’s arsenal to move the discussion forward, and there are a number of types of probing questions. Generally, these probing questions target either the student’s definition of terms, assumptions underlying their answer, or extensions from their conclusions – with best results when taken to the extreme! Using elements of the Socratic method when teaching is a step away from the overuse of rote memorization, commonplace in large lecture classes, and has powerful advantages in developing critical thinking and confidence.

Avoiding the single-answer memory recall (or “jeopardy”) questions in favour of a more thought-provoking one, the instructor sends their students on a path towards becoming well informed citizens (if not scientists). The resulting students are primed to critically form opinions on anything from vaccinations to global warming. Not providing students a regular forum to question their understanding of the material begs the question, what are we teaching our science students to do?

Resources on Socratic teaching:

Rob Reich, “The Socratic Method: What it is and how to use it in the classroom” May 2003. 

MacKnight, C.B. (2000). Teaching Critical Thinking through Online Discussions. Educause Quarterly 4:38-41.

Marcel Pinheiro is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biology and participant in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) Program.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

Teaching and Learning Inventories – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

This week the issue of teaching and learning inventories came up on two different occasions.  Although the contexts of the conversations were different, the topic triggered my interest in the types and usage of inventories in university teaching.

What are the teaching and learning inventories? Inventories are basically self-scoring instruments that focus on some aspect of teaching or learning behaviour, approach, preference, attitudes, etc.  A sound inventory is conceptually grounded in relevant teaching/learning theory and supported by extensive empirical studies.  Inventories include a scoring sheet and descriptive categories that classify individuals into X number of distinctive types/profiles based on their scores. Some of you might have come across similar tools used in other contexts, for example the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI), a well-known personality inventory.

My quick search of educational literature and higher education websites revealed plenty of teaching and learning inventories (and critiques thereof).  I worked with a couple of them in our teaching workshops.  For example, Pratt’s Teaching Perspectives Inventory is the tool that we often use to help instructors articulate their teaching philosophy and examine their personal beliefs and values as educators.  This inventory is available online and used by many educators across Canada.  Other similar self-reported inventories for university instructors include the Teaching Goals Inventory by Angelo and Cross (1993), the Approaches to Teaching Inventory by Trigwell and Prosser (1999) and the Philosophic Inventory by Leahy (1995).

In addition to teaching inventories, there is a wide range of learning inventories that instructors can use with students to help them identify their learning strengths and preferences and become more effective learners. Some of the most popular ones are the VARK Questionnaire and the Soloman-Felder Index of Learning Styles, which was co-developed by Richard Felder, a chemical engineering professor in the US.  Other popular instruments include the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory (1999) and the Approaches to Study Inventory by Entwistle and Ramsden (1983).  Finally, instructors working with first-year students might find the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI) useful for helping students to identify their learning strengths and weaknesses and to develop more effective study strategies.

Clearly, there is no shortage of various self-assessment and self-awareness tools in higher education.   Some of them (e.g., learning style inventories) were challenged by educators on conceptual and methodological grounds.   That being said, I can see why some instructors, TAs and students might find them appealing.  For one, inventories could help novice learners or beginning teachers to become more self-aware. Also, inventories are powerful tools for conveying the message about individual differences and diversities that permeate all aspects of teaching and learning.  I think that if we are to view inventories with a skeptical eye and use them as a way of stimulating a discussion rather than finding definite answers,  then they could be helpful tools for teachers and students.  When considering various inventories, we should keep in mind that they are designed  to identify preferences rather inborn characteristics and are meant to be descriptive not explanatory.

Are you using any teaching or learning inventories in your courses?


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

Reflections on Learning as an International Student – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As a former international student pursuing two graduate degrees in North America, I can relate to the many academic challenges experienced by international students on our campus. At the heart of these challenges is the process of navigating the various aspects of the new academic culture and learning the language of academic communication, both written and oral. Continue reading Reflections on Learning as an International Student – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Using World Cafe Methodology to Transform Classroom Discussions – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As I was recently sitting in one of my favourite local cafes surrounded by conversations, I noticed how deeply engaged and connected the participants of these conversations were.  It is not that often that I get to see this type of conversations in the university classroom.  No doubt, the physical layout of a modern classroom is a far cry from the ambient and hospitable space that one expects to find in their favourite cafe.  But is there a way to create a conversation in the classroom that builds authentic connections, engages the learners and makes them fully present in the moment? Continue reading Using World Cafe Methodology to Transform Classroom Discussions – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

On global campuses and internationalized courses – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

Some interesting global developments related to new cross-border delivery of educational services are currently taking place in higher education.  In recent years many Canadian universities have joined their Australian and British counterparts in establishing their presence overseas. To this end, several universities have established various partnership agreements  and opened branch campuses and franchises in Asia and the Middle East. Some that come to mind are Hong Kong campus of the UWO’s Ivey School of Business, University of Calgary’s nursing education program in Qatar, Al-Ahram Canadian University in Egypt and Canadian University in Dubai. Our own institution has also began the foray into cross-border education. Many of us here at UW are currently following with interest the developments related to the opening of UW campus in Dubai.

Amidst all these exciting and bold global initiatives by Canadian universities, it is easy to overlook the efforts of individual faculty members who are trying to find creative ways to bring the international and the global into their classrooms. In higher education literature, this process of bringing international perspectives into the content and delivery of the course is known as course internationalization. While there is a perception that some disciplines and courses lend themselves better to internationalization while others are not, there is emerging evidence reported by faculty from various disciplines as to how the possibilities of applying international lens to virtually any course. Here are a couple of examples of how faculty members in computer science internationalized their courses:

Here, at UW, we also have some interesting course internationalization projects underway. A couple weeks ago I had a chance to talk to Josh Neufeld of Biology about his fourth-year biology course. Josh and his tech-savvy undergraduate student, Forest Rong Wang, created a collection of digital interviews from international researchers whose articles were used in the course. Josh came up with an idea to send Webcams to the international researchers in his field and to invite them to return recorded interviews with their ‘behind-the-scenes’ perspectives on their scientific discoveries. All ten researchers responded enthusiastically and provided insightful interviews, telling Josh’s students about how their scientific discoveries were made, how this discovery shaped their career, and what they love about science and academia. During the course, Josh’s students not just did presentations based on research articles but also watched interviews with each of the researcher who conducted the research and wrote the article. What a neat idea! And the best part is that this approach can work in many other courses.